In Search of Bhagat Singh
By Dr Asif Javed
Just over eight decades ago this week, fearless Bhagat Singh walked up to the gallows, accompanied by his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. We are told he refused to wear the mask over his head, was allowed a parting embrace with his fellow prisoners, and proclaimed, “Now the world will see how the revolutionary sons of India embrace death”. On the way to the gallows, the three of them kept chanting, “Long live the revolution”. Their fellow prisoners reciprocated from inside their cells. A local congressman, Pindi Dass Sodhi who lived nearby, reports hearing their slogans clearly in his house. Soon afterwards, a deathly silence fell over the infamous gaol as the hangman, Massih from Shahdara, performed his job that was to silence this brave son of Punjab for ever. He was only 23 at the time and the fateful day was 23 March, 1931.
As often happens, the reality gets mixed up with legend over time; this has also happened in case of Bhagat Singh. On a recent trip to Pakistan, I visited the roundabout in Shadmaan Lahore; this roundabout is reportedly the exact spot where the gallows stood before the infamous Lahore Central Jail was demolished. I used to have a picture taken by legendary press photographer, Chacha Chaudhry of Pakistan Times, that showed the gallows. As I stood there, I realized not many passers-by really knew the significance of this historic spot. Almost four decades later, the same roundabout was to witness the assassination of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri in 1973. Legend has it that Mr. Kasuri had been the only magistrate willing to sign the death warrant for Bhagat Singh. If true, this is a remarkable coincidence. However, an article by RK Kaushik, an Indian Administrative Services Officer who has reviewed the official record of the execution, names Sh. Abdul Hamid and Lala Nathuram as the duty magistrates present.
Bhagat Singh was born in Banga, a small village in Jaranwala, near Faisalabad. At the time of my visit recently, accompanied by a nephew who happens to be a civil servant in Faisalabad, Bhagat Singh’s ancestral house still stands. The current resident is a refugee from Eastern Punjab and reports frequent visitors from abroad, particularly India. We were told that a few years ago, an old and ailing brother of the late freedom fighter visited and has since died in India where the family migrated at the time of partition. The primary school where Bhagat Singh studied still stands but just barely. Incidentally, the final resting place of the legendary lovers Mirza and Sahiban is also located in the same area; that is a story for another time.
BS’s family was politically well informed and very active. Both his father and paternal uncle were members of the Ghadar Party. His uncle had to flee abroad to avoid arrest and eventually ended up in Brazil. His father had also spent time in prison.
It seems that the young lad from rural Punjab was really moved by the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and visited the place later bringing back a sample of the soil as a memory. There is some disputed evidence that Bhagat Singh was present and may have witnessed first hand the brutal beating of Lala Lajpat Roy in Lahore by police. Lala Lajpat Roy was a respected political activist and philanthropist. The Gulab Devi Hospital in Lahore that stands to this day was founded by him in memory of his late mother. Lala succumbed to his injuries a few days later. At the time, BS was a student in National College, Lahore that was founded by Lala Lajpat Roy too. Interestingly, the Bradlaugh Hall still stands -- though in a dilapidated state -- behind Data Durbar in Lahore. BS and his companions swore revenge but in a tragic case of missed identity, gunned down the wrong British police officer. The bullets were fired from the New Hostel building of the famous Govt. College, Lahore. After shooting, the assailants ran towards DMV College and were given chase by Channan Singh, a police constable, who was also shot by BS, before fleeing. Some time later, BS and Dutt exploded home- made bombs inside the legislative assembly in Delhi and courted arrest. Of note, Motilal Nehru and MA Jinnah were in the building at the time. The trial that followed in Lahore was used by the accused not to defend themselves but to publicize their political goal. Death sentences ware passed on to BS, Sukhdev and Rajguru and carried out a day in advance to prevent disturbances since emotions were running high and the authorities feared riots. The three dead bodies were whisked away to a spot outside Ganda Singh Wala village, burned in a hurry, and the remains thrown in Sutlaj River.
So what kind of man was BS? DN Gupta who has authored two books, has this to say of him: “Today Bhagat Singh is widely known to be a nationalist who sacrificed his life in the struggle for freedom. What is not well known is the fact that he was a Marxist and revolutionary who despite his young age, had already established himself as an intellectual. He was well read and was heavily influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, Engle and Lenin.”
Ajay Ghosh who was a co-defendant in the same Lahore conspiracy case, and was later to become the General Secretary of CPI, writes of BS’s remarkable intelligence and the powerful impression he made when talking. Though not a brilliant speaker, BS spoke with such force, passion and earnestness that one could not help being impressed. Ghosh notes that although BS could be impetuous and lacked the coolness of Azad, he was of affectionate nature, frank and open-hearted with no trace of pettiness in his make-up; he was a man who claimed the love of all who were acquainted with him.
Many of BS’s speeches and letters have survived. In a statement that he delivered to the court, he said: “The bomb explosions were absolutely necessary to get British Govt.’s attention; non-violence as a strategy is a failure; there is justification for violence to achieve our goal and the new movement is influenced by the teachings of Guru Goband Singh, Shivaji, Raza Khan, Kamal Pasha, Washington and Lennon …” Shiv Verma, another of BS’s comrades notes, “As a thinker, BS was far ahead of his contemporaries.” BS wrote often from 1923-1930 on God, religion, language, culture and political leaders but more than any thing else, he wrote on the political organizations and revolution. However, one of his best writings came out in the very last days of his life. Titled “Why am I an atheist?” it was published posthumously by his father in the weekly newspaper “The people”. This is an extremely well written piece of about 12-13 pages. Take this statement, for example: “The only consolation for me is that I am sacrificing my life for a noble cause. A Hindu believer can expect to be rewarded in next life while Muslims and Christians can expect the reward in heaven but what is in there for me? All I expect is a last moment when the noose will tighten around my neck and the board will move from under my feet. For me that will be the very end of a life of struggle; that by itself is a reward enough for me. I have spent my entire life fighting for independence without any personal gain or motive in mind. That is all I could have done.” This is a very moving document that gives an in-depth look of his soul; one may disagree with his reasoning but his commitment and conviction to his cause are hard to question.
Today, the man who made the ultimate sacrifice and surely ranks right up there with Che Gevara, Castro, Hassan Nasir, Rosa Luxumburg and the like has no memorial in Pakistan. I am told there is a statue of him in the Indian Parliament building alongside that of Gandhi and Nehru. It would be befitting if at least the roundabout in Shadmaan, Lahore, is named after him. This writer recently saw a medical school as well as a road, both named after a politician’s father in Sialkot. Our claustrophobic politicians are too preoccupied recognizing their families and cronies. We have come to a stage where the corrupt politicians and murder convicts are given the titles of Shaheeds and have airports named after them while the real heroes like BS remain unappreciated. Is anyone listening?
(The writer is a physician based in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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